Between naïveté and arrogance: tuition increases at UBC

Pinned to backpacks, painted on cheeks, held in clenched fists above megaphones and signs with slogans like, “Place of mind? Place of money,” and “UBC drop the fees”: the red squares were everywhere on campus last year.

The protests were nothing new. In 1989, the signs read, “Increase funding not fees: 11% NOW.” In the 1990s, they said, “BoG listen to students and stop walking over them.” Toward the end of President David Strangway’s term in 1996, students erected “Camp David” outside his office while others camped inside. His administration refused to negotiate with the students who were there to protest a 310 per cent tuition increase being pushed through that year.

UBC was founded on student protests and as far back as the 1930s the AMS was clashing with an intransigent Board of Governors over whether tuition increases were really the best way to improve the university.

[''] File photo Geoff Lister / The Ubyssey

When it comes to tuition hikes at UBC, there are two entrenched problems: tuition as a source of prestige and the manner in which students are consulted.

While the university has raised tuition for various reasons — in the mid-1980s, a dramatic increase was needed due to a provincial budget crisis — its current justification walks the line between naivety and arrogance.

Domestic and International Tuition By Year


Domestic International

UBC sees tuition as an enabler of “excellence.” Yet they admittedly have no definition of excellence. Instead they insist that the stature of the institution can only increase with tuition hikes despite not knowing how they’ll be spending the increased revenue. Even less, apparently, do they consider the side-effects the hikes will have on their students of today and tomorrow.

Lower tuition really means the people who come are the best.

— Veronica Knott, student Board of Governors representative

“Lower tuition really [means] the people who come … are the best,” said Veronica Knott, one of the student representatives on the Board of Governors. “They’re not just the people with the most money.” 

UBC argues that when the University of Toronto and the University of McGill raise their tuition fees — as they have over the past decade or so — they are able to lure top-notch faculty to their doors. Global ranking systems such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) or Shanghai Rankings — in which UBC is ranked 40 — look primarily at faculty research output and good research costs money.

As U of T and McGill climb higher and higher in rankings, UBC administrators say the Board of Governors directed them to keep pace with tuition at the rival schools, seemingly solely on principle. With a firm provincial domestic tuition cap, it falls to international students to foot the resulting bill.

This logic seems simple enough: UBC needs money to maintain its status as one of Canada's top universities. The easiest place to get that money is by increasing tuition fees of international students. But relying on high tuition revenue as a source of prestige turns a degree from UBC into a product. Administrators become less concerned with the needs of individual students and instead focus primarily on whether they can pay the price. This attitude makes UBC less accessible for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, limiting the range of opinions and perspectives in the classroom and on campus. 

Moreover, it puts students at a disadvantage in tuition negotiations because the university views them first as a source of income.

The wording of the UBC’s Board of Governors resolution directing the administration that to raise fees is crucial:

“The UBC Board of Governors requests that Administration set international student tuition fees at levels that reflect UBC’s standing as a global university and the value of a UBC degree. While ensuring that the University maintains healthy enrolment of international students and attracts and retains a diverse range of students, the fees should support the mission and excellence of the University and should be comparable to those at peer institutions.”

— UBC Board of Governors Agenda, 9 June 2015

[''] Photo courtesy AMS archives

Nebulous 'value'

The university doesn’t determine the worth of a UBC degree based on practical economic indicators such as the average post-graduation starting wage or after-tax income of UBC grads. Instead the school judges the financial worth of their degrees off students’ personal happiness and satisfaction with their education.

“It’s about when students graduate they say, ‘This was something I’m really glad I did,' even understanding what it cost them,” said Interim Provost Anji Redish.

But when the university sets a monetary value on a degree from UBC, they’re putting a price tag on something that shouldn’t have a price tag, said Amy Metcalfe, an associate education professor at UBC.

When the university sets a monetary value on a degree from UBC, they’re putting a price tag on something that shouldn’t have a price tag

“The discussion is about human capital rather than human potential,” she said. “The human capital approach to higher education funding places a value of a student’s time at university and tuition spent as an ‘input’ with an expected rate of return in the form of employment income after graduation.”

This turning of education into a commodity is reflected in the Board of Governors mandate which is the reason Knott said she voted against the tuition resolution: the resolution was based too much on supposed market value and not enough on UBC’s actual needs.

“The motivation really is to improve the experience and improve the university ... that was what drove that resolution,” said Knott. “I think it’s the right goal … I think there’s just better solutions.”

The commodification of education was a concerning trend for many students who participated in the protests last fall. 

It encourages students to see “university, not necessarily as a learning experience or as a place to acquire like a certain kind of knowledge, but rather simply as like job training,” said Gabriel D’Astous, a UBC graduate and one of the main organizers of last year’s IAmaStudent student protest movement against tuition hikes.

“I personally think that UBC is much like a company,” complained Rachel Chan, a second-year Sauder student. “It gives motivational speeches and paints pretty fluffy pictures for students because we are customers. They need us to refer new customers, tell other friends about how great UBC is and perhaps get them to join.”

It should be noted that it’s not just international students whose tuition fees are being seen as avenues for prestige, either. In a briefing to AMS councillors in July, the university and government relations advisor to the AMS pointed out that the university is actively pushing the provincial government to remove the cap on domestic tuition increases – the only mechanism standing in the way between domestic students and the same kind of fee hikes international students are currently experiencing.

[''] Photo courtesy AMS Archives

'Diversity' versus prestige

The university maintains that despite fee increases for international students it sees the value of having people from a wide variety of backgrounds in the classrooms.

“By having a very diverse university campus, students from around the world … enrich our learning,” said Pam Ratner, Interim Vice-Provost as well as Associate Vice President Enrolment and Facilities.

Redish also notes the benefits of having students from a variety of socioeconomic classes. Drawing on her experience as an economics professor, she said domestic students had a more limited view on some issues like monetary policy.

“For students that have been elsewhere, that have lived in situations where there have been deflation or there’s been hyperinflation, they challenge the students in the class,” she said. “Bringing different perspectives is a very important component.”

However, Redish herself freely admitted UBC has no way of measuring the socioeconomic diversity of its international student body.

 “So that’s probably something we need to work on,” she said.

In the same interview, Redish said that the international tuition was being raised in increments over three years to measure whether the increases will have a negative impact on diversity. This suggests a cognitive dissonance that has yet to be accounted for.

“By pushing this limit of international tuition up and up and up, we’re really going to start seeing the diversity of this institution erode,” said AMS President Aaron Bailey. "[That’s] detrimental, not just to the international students who can’t come here and study, but to the people who can afford to study here.”

What is 'excellence'?

As with prioritizing “diversity” despite lacking necessary metrics to track it, the university has used the quest for “excellence” to justify the tuition increases. Yet, there is startlingly little information on what exactly "excellence" means for the institution in real terms. 

“They don't know the meaning of the word they are using to justify something this massive,” said a frustrated Bailey.

Redish acknowledged that there is no working definition for the term at UBC.

“We’re going to seek feedback on that,” said Redish when pressed. “I’m not going to chart out a simple statement.”

In the way that the word “excellence” is used most frequently by the university it denotes high-profile faculty, world-class research and, in theory, the best students in Canada who will flock to UBC because of its faculty and research reputation.

Proposed International Tuition Increases


Applied Science

But Redish said the definition is open to change and could come to include student learning.

“Maybe after we’ve finished all of the consultation people will say, ‘Actually, the goal should be the best student learning experience and you should be measuring the experience and not to attract the best students in Canada,’” said Redish.

The problem with relying on a subjective word like “excellence,” said AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Jenna Omassi, is that it ignores the day-to-day experiences of the students who are attending UBC now but being asked to pay for future “excellence.”

“If excellence has to do with university ranking it is only research that is really included into the conversation,” Omassi said when the international tuition increases were announced. “But as a student and a member of the UBC community I know that university excellence is more than that. It is about the student experience primarily and the community that surrounds a university.”

[''] File photo / Ubyssey archive

Student voice and consultation

The nebulous definitions which UBC uses to justify the most recent tuition increases are meant to be defined, at least partially, through the student consultation that opened this week. However, because the Board instructed the administration to raise fees and the administration created a plan to do so, Redish said that student consultation won’t change whether or not the fee increases go through. The order in which this process has taken place is problematic to many.

“The process was backwards,” said Omassi. She feels that it has left no place for the voice of students. “It really puts a barrier on how we can advocate on behalf of students and what’s going to happen with these increases.”

Student consultation has always been limited. The 1997 sit-in at President Strangway's office occurred in part because the university did not abide by their own Policy 71 — outlining how consultation should be carried out — and unilaterally raised tuition fees by 310 per cent. “We did feel we had a gun pointed to our head,” admitted protest organizer Jonathan Oppenheimer at the end of the sit-in in Strangway’s office. During the sit-in the administration refused to negotiate with the protesters.

The contentious relationship between university administrators and students persists today. “We still need to push as a student body for them to really meaningfully consult with students,” Bailey said. He added that students should be seen “as problem solvers, not just ... as customers who are being notified of a price increase."

“It can get adversarial because there can be an expectation that, because we don’t want tuition to increase, we just won’t engage in anything,” Knott said of the university’s perception of students. “It’s a default mechanism and I think that’s really unfortunate because that shuts the student voice out.”

Bailey also believes that it’s time for students to start being more vocal as well and to tell the Board of Governors and the administration that UBC is their institution too. 

“There’s papers, there’s midterms, you’re bogged down [and] you’re probably working three jobs just to try to pay to go through. But remember that the university, at all times, needs to listen to you when it makes decisions,” Bailey said. “It’s your responsibility and your opportunity to get loud and speak up about these kinds of things.”

– With files from Joshua Azizi, Sarah Nabila, Arno Rosenfeld, Vassilena Sharlandjieva and Bill Situ


- UBC should postpone tuition consultation and the Board of Governors vote on whether to increase international tuition until the univesrity does not have interim leaders serving as president, board chair, and provost

- UBC should justify all tuition increases by explaining the specific financial needs of the institutions

- UBC should adopt a policy of notifying students through a broadcast email of any proposed tuition increase as soon as it becomes an agenda items at a Board of Governors meeting

- UBC should be required to consider and publicly outline the impact any tuition increase will have on student diversity

- UBC should adopt a policy of lobbying the provincial government for more funding before seeking to raise tuition and should publicly outline the lobbying process and outcome

Arno Rosenfeld, Features Editor

[''] File photo / Ubyssey archives